No conclusion on extending free visas for Taiwanese: Thai official

Taipei-The director of the Thailand Tourism Division in Taiwan said Monday that his country has not reached a conclusion about whether to continue allowing free visas for Taiwanese nationals, a policy that will expire by the end of August.

"Right now, we don't have an answer from our government (about the visa issue)," said Chookiet Potito, who was attending a tourism promotion campaign aimed at increasing Taiwan-Thailand travel exchanges.

The Thai government launched a three-month program in December 2016 to allow Taiwanese tourists free visas, which cost NT$1,200 (US$40) each, and in February extended it to Aug. 31.

However, the Southeast Asian country has given no indication that it will further extend the privilege, which has worried many local tourists and travel agencies.

"We definitely need the government to negotiate visa concessions for us," said Hsiao Ming-jen (???), deputy secretary-general of the New Taipei City Association of Travel Agents.

Hsiao said local travel agencies have spent a great deal of effort restoring local interest in travel to Thailand in recent years "because the country has too many uncertainties, and it will be a pity if incentives such as visa concessions do not continue."

Besides natural disasters and political turmoil, the death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej last October dealt a tremendous blow to the local tourism industry, he said.

However, according to Taiwan's Tourism Bureau, the visa program has not injected much energy into Thailand travel.

Taiwanese visitor arrivals to Thailand registered 599,523 in 2015 and 532,787 in 2016, according to bureau data. The numbers were even worse in the first half of 2017, which saw 266,960 Taiwanese visiting Thailand, a 6 percent drop year-on-year.

However, Chookiet said statistics from the Thailand Tourism Bureau recorded around 3 percent growth in Taiwanese nationals traveling to Thailand during the same period, explaining that the two sides have different criteria.

From the viewpoint of Thailand, anybody entering the country on a Taiwanese passport fits the tourist category, while the Taiwanese authorities only count its nationals leaving from Taiwan.

Chookiet argued that the issue of visa waiver concessions has been drawing too much attention from the public.

"(The visa privilege) is not the main point for Taiwanese tourists to Thailand," he told CNA, adding that it is his country's tourist attractions and hospitable people that make it such an appealing global travel destination.

Taiwan granted visa waiver treatment to Thai visitors from Aug. 1, 2016, and there has been increasing public demand for Thailand to offer Taiwanese reciprocal treatment.

The Taiwanese government has also taken some assertive moves to request continued visa benefits or even a visa waiver program.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Thailand, for instance, has issued statements in Mandarin, Thai and English to lobby for such a move.

The office has even touched on the cross-Taiwan Strait issue, which many believe to be the main reason for Thailand's hesitation.

"Granting visa waiver treatment to Taiwan should be regarded as a practical and pragmatic arrangement on a reciprocal basis, rather than a political move," the office said.

"In fact, China has never uttered a word to her 109 diplomatic allies that have granted visa waiver treatment for Taiwanese passport-holders," according to the office.

The office argues that Thailand has already granted China's two territories of Hong Kong and Macau visa waiver treatment on separate consideration even before considering the same treatment for China itself, which shows that granting Taiwan visa waiver treatment can also be considered separately.

"There seems to be no conflict with Thailand's 'one China' principle," the office said.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel